Could living at high altitude raise suicide risk ?

November 12, 2012

Could living at high altitude raise suicide risk ?

Recent research has indicated that perhaps living at a higher altitude increases your risk of committing suicide. The report published in the American Journal of Psychiatry says that the increased strain on the metabolic system due to lower oxygen levels at altitude may have a bearing on factors which could lead someone to consider taking their own life. The factors under consideration include those who have mental problems such as mood disorders or depression. Researchers also identified that many regions at high altitude in the U.S. are sparsely populated and rural with a high level of gun owners in the population. The researchers accept that this may also have a bearing on the amounts of suicides seen in these areas.

The study co author Dr. Perry Renshaw, is a psychiatry professor at the Utah School of Medicine. He is also an investigator with the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. He says, “There isn’t a lot of work that has been done in this area, but asthma and air pollution have been linked in prior research to increased suicide rates around the world. So the physiological environment can play a role in risk. And if there’s something about this particular environment that’s influencing suicide rates, it’s important to know”.

The study identified that the area known as the ‘Intermountain West’ has the highest incidence of suicides in the United States. The region consists of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Alaska was also seen as a state with a high rate of suicides. Twenty years worth of data was analyzed during the study, the data had previously been collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has recorded data showing that the states of the ‘Intermountain West’ region have the highest altitudes over large areas in the United States.

Part of the study led to Renshaw and fellow researchers from the University of Utah Brain Institute, along with colleagues from Case Western Reserve University and the Veteran Affairs Salt Lake City Health System to find data on gun ownership and density of the population over the areas being investigated. It was no surprise to find that in these areas the rate of suicide is higher amongst gun owners and those who live an isolated lifestyle.

Although the researchers noted these events they did not conclude that these were the only factors causing the high suicide rate. They believe that even after taking these factors into consideration high altitude remains a risk factor.

The researchers also identified that people who live above 6,500 feet above sea level have an increased risk of suicide. The study calculated the increased risk as 33% more than someone living at sea level. Utah is a state where a large proportion of it is at or above 6,500 feet.

To further reinforce this finding another researcher and lead author, Namkug Kim carried out a similar study on South Koreans living in elevated areas. His findings showed that in South Korea those living at or above 6,500 feet above sea level had a suicide risk 125% higher than those living at sea level. Although these findings are important the researchers are still aware that other factors such as sex, age, ethnicity, family history, culture and status, both economic and social, all have a bearing on someone’s risk of committing suicide.

Of the study Renshaw says, “If altitude does play a role, there are probably remedies at hand short of everyone in Salt Lake City moving down to sea level. But of course, it’s too soon to say what the remedy would be. In fact, if the case we’ve built for this holds up that will be the 64-million-dollar question”.

Other experts in the field say that while the link between high altitude living and high rates of suicide is possible other factors are also probably involved. Alan L. Berman is the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C., and he says that the finding is ‘not surprising’, but he thought that other factors were at work too.

He says, “For example, as is well known, these states are generally much more rural than the eastern U.S., where suicide rates are relatively low. And in rural and remote areas, there is great distance between a person in psychological trouble and a resource that could intervene: a caregiver, agency, crisis center. Therefore, there is in general going to be less help-seeking and help-receiving”.

Berman also points out that because these states have a higher proportion of white people to black people and because whites are more liable to kill themselves then the numbers will appear disproportionate at first glance.

He ends by suggesting that no one factor is responsible for the high rate of suicides when he says, “So there are a whole number of variables associated with the western or intermountain states where these suicide rates are high. And those variables may better explain the association than altitude”.

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